Lake Catemaco (Laguna de Catemaco in Spanish) is a picturesque freshwater lake in south central Veracruz. Our planned one night camping stop turned into a restful three-week vacation in this sleepy town surrounded by tropical rain forest.
Following the suggestion in our well-used copy of Camping in Mexico, we pulled into the Tepetapan RV Park. We pulled in after dark as the campsite’s only guest. With no one around but a guard, there was a eerie feel our first night as rain fell from the pitch black sky. The pool was drained. Gene, the American owner, later explained that the downturn in tourism made it too expensive to maintain in the off season.
We planned to check out, but Gene talked us into looking at one of his five amply-sized one-bedroom rental cabins. They were perfect. For about $250 per month (including electricity, internet, and the use of a washer and dryer) we could not resist. I enjoyed the comfortable king-sized bed and full kitchen. Brent liked the break from driving. The children loved running wild and free in the expansive backyard, and we all loved settling into our authentic Mexican neighborhood. We had one Canadian neighbor staying long term. Another American family stayed for a night but left in search of something more resort-like. Gene is helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable. The children liked his two talking rescue parrots.
This area is known as the heart of the Olmec Culture, The Olmecs first appear in Mexican history around 600 B.C. and flourished until around A.D. 200. Today, Catemaco is known as the witchcraft capital of Mexico. Brujos (male witches) are revered. They can be paid to invoke a curse on someone or to heal the sick. There are plenty of brujos around offering spiritual cleansing, and signs around town offer their services.
Pre-Hispanic indigenous rites and the teachings of Mexico’s Catholic culture find an uncomfortable crossroads here. There are many shamans around the lake. It’s impossible to miss the idols set up in just about every place of business. Once a year, this small Veracruz town hosts a national convention for sorcery. Mexicans bring sick children and the aged in hope for healing. People identified as demonically possessed are carried in. For a price, the brujos claim to rid them of demons. Most come to pay a small fee in return for another year’s successful planting harvest or safety.
The Catholic Church looks the other way as the Catholic saints are generally invoked during prayers. We looked but found no evangelical church or missionary presence in the area.
Tourism in Lake Catemaco
For those (like us) who are not drawn to Catemaco’s invitation for sorcery, there is plenty to do. As birders and wildlife enthusiasts, we enjoyed the natural beauty. Many tourists come just to enjoy one of the most beautiful venues in Veracruz. A part of the lake’s charm is the local feel. We took several hikes through the rainforest and walked around the jungle areas where Sean Connery´s “Medicine Man” (1992) and Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” (2005) were filmed.
Although this famous lake is the pride of Veracruz, there are no high rise hotels, no major tourist infrastructure. International tourism has been down in Mexico and Lake Catemaco is clearly suffering the consequences. During rainy season (when we visited), large restaurant sat empty, and gorgeous, well-manicured hotels still offered full packages have no guests. In some ways, it was sad to see this once thriving town so quiet. What this means to the tourist is that there are no pushy crowds, no loud nightlife and incredible bargains waiting.
The lake is still a popular weekend spot for Mexicans; many arrived by tour buses. There are numerous food stalls set up and some nice restaurants overlooking the lake. Souvenir vendors were eager to sell water toys and tee shirts and the ever-present stuffed monkeys.
The highlight for any visitor is renting a private small boat charter. About 50 small boats docked at the shore with captains waiting to scurry tourists away from the small city to the most peaceful spot in all of Veracruz. This is an absolute must of your visit. We paid less than twenty dollars for our entire family to spend a memorable morning on the lake.
Lake Catemaco was formed by a volcano. Fed by natural springs, the water is clear and clean even during rainy season. There are several volcanic islands within the lake.
Two of the islands are called Monkey Island. One island is home to the active and playful native Spider monkeys. The other island hosts imported Stumptail Macaque monkeys native to Southeast Asia. In the late 70’s they were a part of a research project by the University of Veracruz. The monkeys are not in captivity; they range free on their own islands. We also saw alligators in the water, stately water birds, and floating lotus.
The boat was careful to steer around the many snail divers. Snails are the area’s delicacy, prized as an aphrodisiac. I was seven months along with my pregnancy when we visited; snails were never a part of my experience.
The family did eat raw oysters on the half shell. These are shucked by the thousands at Sontecomapan (Spring of the Dwarfs) the small, spring-fed swimming hole surrounded by mature vegetation. The spring generates an absolutely clear canal leading to Lake is absolutely clear. The water´s refraction shortens the legs of bathers, turning them into visual dwarfs. We had an absolute blast playing here and very much recommend it, especially for families with children.
If you are looking for great service, pleasant atmosphere and menu with quality seafood, we suggest La Ola, the oldest (but still the best) restaurant. La Ola is located on the malecón overlooking the lake, and strikes a fine balance between upscale dining and a family-friendly ambiance. Our children enjoyed the small playground, a caged crocodile and some turtles in the play area. Serenading Mariachi bands are sure to find your table.
If have the time to stay a few days or longer there are great vegetable and meat markets around and also a small Soriana and Bodega Aurrera. Don’t drive through Veracruz without a least a day to visit Lake Catemaco. At about 850 miles from the Laredo, Texas, Catemaco provides a pleasant stop for those driving through
Here is a short clip that will make you ready to pack up and bring your family to Lake Catemaco.